“And now it is Christmas again, now it is Christmas again, and Christmas lasts until Easter! No, that is not true, no that is not true, for in between comes the fast.”
This is a Swedish Christmas ditty that the whole family is supposed to sing over and over and over again after eating the Christmas supper on December 24, while holding onto each others’ shoulders and running in a row throughout the house.
It sounds weird, but believe me, it’s fun.
However, this habit never made it to Iceland.
Here, as in Norway, Christmas is a more serious matter.
I went searching for information on pagan Christmas in the Nordic countries, but discovered that next to nothing is known about the festival.
The oldest information I have found was written by Christians about two centuries after paganism had been abandoned, and one should not take it as the absolute truth, writes Árni Björnsson, whose educational background is cultural history.
But what is known is that Nordic Christmas was always a celebration of light.
That festival, or a similar one, where the lengthening of the day is celebrated at midwinter, is known all over the world and represents the human spirit’s need for a festival during the darkest months of winter.
A poem from the 9th century about the king Haraldur Harfagri (pretty-haired) says he wants to “drink Yule outside” and “play Frey’s game.”
Freyr is the pagan god of love, so this appears to mean that Haraldur wants to hold a feast and while at it, enjoy some sort of lovemaking, according to Björnsson.
The god Freyr also had a big boar, and in another poem, the men lead in a big Frey’s boar, lay their hands upon it and swear oaths.
“It is well known that sexual rites are known among people who live in close contact with nature and believe that fertility in men calls upon fertility in nature,” writes Björnsson.
But the feast at the end of the year was not necessarily a religious one.
People held a fest, ate, drank and were merry, but it was the Christians who added the religious meaning to the feast.
Old tales hardly mention Yule without speaking of the big feast that followed, and in old Norse law, men are obliged to brew ale and keep it until Yuletide.
The reason, one might guess, is that kings often traveled among their subjects at this time of year, and wanted ale, of course, as well as a good feast.
It is likely that when Haraldur wanted to “go out” for his feast, he meant feasts at his subjects’ houses.
It is also likely that Yule was not set at any particular time, but rather held when the moon was full, which allowed for an easier travel during the darkest months.
And all people at the home participated in the festivities, slaves as well as the richest farmers.
One interesting tidbit about the greeting, Merry Christmas: In all the Nordic countries, we say “joy-filled Yule.”
Likely, this is a saying quite a bit older than the settlement in Iceland.
So, I say, “Og nu er det jul igen, nu er det jul igen, og julen varer indtil pasken! Men det er inte sandt, det er inte sandt, for der i mellem kommer fastan!”
(Don’t quote me on the Swedish spelling, though!)
A very merry Christmas to all of you. May it be filled with joy.